New trial set in deputy killing

The retrial for the schizophrenic man who shot and killed a Fresno County sheriff's deputy in 2001 won't start until late August at the earliest, a judge decided Monday.

After a monthlong trial and a week of deliberations, a Fresno County Superior Court jury announced in late April that they could not agree on whether Ramadan Abdullah, 26, was guilty of first-degree or second-degree murder.

Judge Ralph Nunez declared a mistrial, and prosecutors chose to retry Abdullah. On Monday, Nunez set a new trial date for Aug. 25.

Prosecutors wanted an earlier date, but Abdullah's defense attorneys said they will need time to determine whether they should file a change of venue motion. They said it's possible that the almost daily news media coverage of Abdullah's trial may make it impossible to find an impartial jury in Fresno County. In that case, the trial would be moved to another county.

Attorney Pete Jones also said that he may ask Nunez to have psychologists evaluate Abdullah to determine whether he is competent to stand trial. If Abdullah is found to be incompetent, he would be sent to a state mental hospital until doctors determine he is competent -- a process that could delay the trial until sometime next year.

But Jones said he has yet to decide whether he will challenge Abdullah's competency.

"At this point, I'm not asserting that," he said. "I'm not saying that I won't assert that in the future."

Abdullah ran away from his family in New York in July 2001 to join an Islamic camp in the Tulare County foothills. A month later, he ran off and broke into an unoccupied home near Dunlap in rural Fresno County. When Fresno County sheriff's deputy Erik Telen, 26, and his partner entered the house to investigate, Abdullah shot and killed Telen.

Abdullah, who suffers from schizophrenia, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. If convicted of first-degree murder and found to be sane, he faces the death penalty.

During Abdullah's trial in March and April, defense attorneys acknowledged that Abdullah shot and killed Telen, but said Abdullah was delusional at the time of the crime. Jones told jurors that Abdullah should be found guilty of second-degree murder because he thought he was acting in self-defense.

Prosecutor Dennis Peterson, however, said Abdullah should be convicted of first-degree murder because there was no evidence Abdullah was delusional when he shot Telen. Peterson said Abdullah's true motive is a mystery.

After a week of deliberations, all but one of the 12 jurors wanted to find Abdullah guilty of first-degree murder. The lone holdout never budged, and the jury announced it was hopelessly deadlocked.

The mistrial prolonged what already has become the most drawn-out criminal case to wind through the Fresno County court system in recent memory. Abdullah has twice been found to be incompetent and sent to state mental hospitals for months-long stays.

Nunez said Monday he worries that if Abdullah's retrial is delayed too long, then Abdullah may be found to be incompetent again. By law, Abdullah must be able to understand courtroom proceedings and be able to cooperate with his defense attorneys before he can be tried.

Defense attorney James Lambe told Nunez that he does not think Abdullah is able to assist in his own defense.

"He hasn't been competent for years," he said.

Jones said that he will need at least a month to find an expert who can poll Fresno County residents to find out how familiar they are with the case.

If Jones can show that Abdullah would face a biased jury in Fresno County, Nunez could decide to move the case to another county.